Organizer Spotlight: James Biela, Toksook Bay, Alaska

“Leadership can start at any age and a group of students at Nelson Island School in Toksook Bay teaches us about the remarkable impact youth can make.”—James Biela

James Biela is an itinerant school social worker who travels to remote rural villages in southwest Alaska, including Toksook Bay (pop. 700).  At James’s encouragement, the student government of Toksook Bay’s Nelson Island School agreed to host a Survivor Day gathering, which turned into a village-wide event.

Steps were taken to make Survivor Day relevant to and reflective of the village’s culture, and the school’s students translated the existing program into their native Yup’ik. In recognition of the significance of the event given the high suicide rate in Toksook Bay, the village’s tribal council and elders did their part to make Survivor Day a success: on the day of the event the stores, post office, and bingo hall were all closed in honor of the event. Two hundred people attended.

james-bielaThe event program included a poetry reading, a memorial ceremony during which students and several village elders shared their memories and stories of healing, and a potluck dinner. The event concluded with a traditional yuraq (Yup’ik dancing).

In 2010, James Biela was instrumental in founding AFSP’s Alaska chapter, on whose board he continues to serve. He also dedicates his time and effort to AFSP as a lead field advocate and coordinator of his chapter’s Survivor Outreach Program.


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